Sunset Camel Tour

We were in Uluru for 3 nights and did three sunset experiences. Our last and possibly best one was the camel ride experience. I’ve been on plenty of horses, but my experience with camels is pretty much obsolete or nonexistent. I really wanted to do a camel ride while in the outback. It’s just so bizarre to think that in a country with beautiful beaches, bustling cities, excessive amount of avocado toast you can also ride a camel. My mom didn’t have the same draw to ride a camel as I did, but once a helicopter ride was out of the question the camel ride was the compromise. 

The feral camel population in Australia is apparently actually out of hand. It’s estimated that there’s around a million feral camels. Who knew? I sure didn’t and that is really not something I would have even guessed. Camels are not indigenous to Australia, but were introduced to help out and work in the outback as the sun is too brutal for horses. The first camels arrived in Australia around 1840. The camels were used for decades, but with the introduction of cars, trucks, etc. their work lessened and they became feral. According to the people who live here they are now a massive problem in the wild. 

The camel farm at Ayers Rock resort has over 80 camels. They have quite the operation there. If camels come in to the property looking for food or water they will pretty much take them in. The camels we road seemed like very happy, well fed beasts. 

If you’ve never rode a camel I’ll say it’s really not like riding a horse. Similar to a horse however they do have their own personalities and characters. At this farm you’ll probably be riding a male camel and apparently they are sexist as well. If the trainer doesn’t create a dominance they won’t respect her and the ride is likely not to go well. 

Camels are a lot bigger than horses and the way you get on them is a bit scary. Our camels were all on their knees in a rest position when we saddled up. They then get up back legs first and then the front similar to a wave motion. Once you’re up it’s very high up. I think higher than any horse I’ve been on, actually no definitely higher than any horse, but somehow you feel more stable. They aren’t known to kick so you won’t be bucked off (they can and do bite though). 

Camels can run up to 65kmh (about 40mph), but on these bush walks they are just cruising and strolling along. Another fun fact is that they actually have camel races in these parts of Oz that are a huge entertainment factor in the fall. 

Our ride was for an hour and we started before sunset. We made a couple of brief stops along the way. The hour was enough if not a little too long. When we got back to the farm we had some bush snacks and refreshments waiting for us. The experience was totally worth it and let the record show my mom did enjoy it as well. 

The camel farm also has a little “Funny Farm.” It’s just a couple of pens, but it has orphaned/injured animals. They have three younger camels there too. Two of them, Bella and Tuesday, are about 1.5 years old. And then there’s a baby camel that’s only a couple of months old named Moose. She is an absolute darling and will cuddle up to anyone. The owner of the farm saved her after her mom was shot. They’ll keep the young ones for a couple of years and eventually sell them off, but i was glad that they had this little area for the misfit animals. 

Even if riding a camel isn’t your thing going to the farm is free and one of the stops on the resort shuttle so definitely make a stop here if you’re staying on the property.

Guide to the Australian Outback

The Outback is quintessential Australia, but probably one of the lesser visited areas of the country. In the states we even have the popular chain restaurant with the infamous blooming onion. That being said most people neglect to visit the Outback and stay on the East Coast of the country. During my mom’s visit we were determined to make it out to the Outback.

The Outback is also known as the Red Center. It is located in the Northern Territory, which is a massive and vast state of Australia. Looking at a map it is between Queensland and Western Australia – directly in the center of the country and north towards Darwin, and thus it is aptly named. The overall population of the state is less than a quarter of a million, but approximately 30% of this population is of Aboriginal descent. This number is significant because Australia’s other states Aboriginal population is typically under 4%. 

By land size it’s third largest state, however the entire state is pretty much desert and therefore remote. Naturally, the climate is significantly different than the other states as well. We were coming during summer and pretty much got the worst of it. This was a very dry heat too. I don’t mind the heat and would much rather be in hot than cold weather. The heat was ruthless, but the worst part was the flies by far. You can visit at any point of the year and will have temperate weather during the day. I think a good rule of thumb, if you could swing it with other travel plans, would be to avoid visiting the area between December – April. That being said this time period would be when you could get the best deals. I’ll repeat it again and then drop it – the heat did not bother me, but the pesky flies could actually drive you mad; I would avoid February in particular because it seemed like that was when the flies were at their peak. 

Things to Do

The most well known site/attraction in the Northern Territory is Uluru, or Ayers Rock. The picturesque rock formation is part of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The park has been deemed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its cultural and natural significance. Until October 2019, visitors were able to climb on Uluru. It is now officially banned given that it was not only extremely dangerous, disrespectful to the Aboriginal people and traditional owners of the land, and harming the surrounding landscape and animals. There are photo lookout points around the area, and you really can’t miss Uluru as it seems to have been dropped out of thin air in the middle of the flat surroundings. However, to actually get a closer look, walk around, or take a tour you have to purchase a pass. The pass is $25 and lasts for 3 days with unlimited entries to both Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Make sure you don’t lose you pass and it’s a good idea to write your name/where you are staying and maybe even a number just in case you misplace it. Having a car would be helpful to have more freedom to come and go at your leisure. If you’re like us and without a car there were some tour options to optimize your visit – including fully guided or more of a shuttle like service. 

Kata Tjuta, or the Olgas, is the other, less known rock formation in the National Park. Coming here for the sunrise and then hike is the perfect start to a day out here. There’s an hour-long hike through the Walpa Gorgeor approximately a three-hour hike through the Valley of the Winds. The early start helps you beat the heat. 

In the area there are many different types of tours and experiences based on budget and preferences. You can ride a camel or in a helicopter or scenic plane; once in a lifetime dining experiences outdoors; star gazing either on your own or guided; a spectacular light/art installation; bike/Segway/motorcycle tours; and many chances to learn about Aboriginal history and culture. 

Three hours by car from Uluru will get you to Watarrka National Park and the location of Kings Canyon. This could technically be done as day trip, but it would be an extremely long day, and better off done as a little detour on the route from Uluru to Alice Springs (or vice versa). 

As the capital of the Outback, Alice Springs is also a popular and historic stop when in the Northern Territory. It is located directly between Darwin and Adelaide, communicating between the two cities via telegraphs was the reason the town was originally established in 1871. You can visit the historic telegraph station while in Alice Springs. Another awesome activity for your stay in Alice Springs is a sunrise hot air balloon ride. 

How long do you need? 

I think a week in the Outback would be a generous amount of time. We spread our stay to three nights in Uluru (Ayers Rock) and one in Alice Springs. If I had to plan the trip again I would have done two nights in Uluru, one night in Kings Canyon, and one night in Alice Springs with a late flight – if a late flight wasn’t available then stay in Alice Springs for an additional night before traveling onward. So I think your first trip to the Outback can be done in around 5 nights. Obviously, you can pad your trip more in Uluru if you wanted a more relaxing/laid back scheduling. 

How do you get there? 

The quickest and most direct method of getting to the Outback would be via flying. Uluru does have an airport, Ayers Rock Airport, which you can fly directly into. We did this from Sydney and it was a pretty painless flight despite my prior experiences with Jetstar. Our flight price to Ayers Rock was also pretty reasonable at $222 for two people (not including luggage or seat selection). If you want to focus your holiday just in Uluru and surrounding area/day trips you can easily fly back the way you came. When we looked at flights these were a lot more expensive – think over $300 for the one way for one person. This is a pretty significant difference from the flight price to fly in. 

The other option is to fly in or out Ayers Rock one way and the other in/out of Alice Springs. This route will give you more ground to cover and see and maybe get a better deal on the flight. Keep in mind you will have to get between the two locations and this is about a 7-hour drive (with some stops) with zero reception. A bus transfer is a safe option, but will cost you around $150-$180 per person. 

A crazier way of traveling would be to drive on your own. I say this is crazy because the desert is no joke. The terrain is massive and different then what I’m sure you have driven through before. I really was serious that on the road from Uluru to Alice there was zero cell phone service (a.k.a. no way of calling for help). If you want the independence of driving at your own time just be safe and do your research. Also, printing out directions MapQuest style would be useful on your trip. 

To tour or not to tour? 

There are many multi-day and stop tours in the Outback. If I was traveling solo, I would have definitely done one of the tours. The Rock Tour is most well known, but I was also recommended WAYOUTBACK and Groovy Grape Tours.

On my trip we went more at our own relaxed pace rather than a ridged schedule. It was the perfect way for us because we had the freedom and independence to spend our days how we pleased. This is a vacation for my mom after all. 

The Ayers Rock Property 

A monopoly is the correct definition of the accommodation near Uluru/Ayers Rock. However, it is a fair, reasonable, and well-run “monopoly,” and that usually isn’t the case. Everything in the surrounding area of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is one property – Voyages Ayers Rock Resort. Within the resort you have different types of accommodation – there are campgrounds, apartments, hotel, ultra luxury, etc. 

Lots of options, but they all fall under the one Voyages umbrella. This is helpful because they make it easy to travel around the property with a resort shuttle running every 20 minutes. You aren’t confined to one resort and it’s dining options for example and can explore easily without a car. There’s also a town center on the route. The town center has a few stores, restaurants, a grocery store, and post office. The camel farm is also on the shuttle route and on property. Everything is basically in one circular route and it is convenient. The resort also offers complimentary airport transfers. 

The town center also has a visitors section with all of the tour companies represented. The main company was AATKings. They seemed like the main transport provider and we were happy with all our interactions with their staff (airport transfer, first night dinner experience, tour of Uluru, and transfer to Alice Springs).  

Full list of properties at the resort: 

My Personal Tips

Buy a fly net. Buying one beforehand will leave you looking prepared and less annoyed than everyone else upon arrival. In the town center thankfully the fly nets were a reasonable price at $10 for one or two for $15. They definitely could have charged more and people would have paid out of desperation. I haven’t checked online, but I’m sure Amazon has them. 

Water bottle. Water is the most important while you are in the Outback. They recommend a liter of water per hour. Carry a reusable water bottle around with you at all times and refill throughout the day. At any day tour they make sure to have coolers of water to refill. 

Bug spray. This will also be a lifesaver. I was reading that the Bushman products are a miracle worker so stock up on some before you head out.  

Sunscreen. Wear it. The sun is brutal and you feel it so make sure to protect your skin. In that regards I also think a hatis very useful. Not only do you get extra shade/protection you can use it as a fly swatter when they get really unruly. You can purchase an Outback looking hat in the town center as well. 

Layers. Temperatures can vary significantly from day to evening so if you are planning on staying out make sure to have something warmer. The reverse advice also goes for sunrisers. If you are taking on the three-hour hike in Kata Tjuta make sure you can easily shed some layers, which were originally necessary for the 4:30am wake up call. 

Bookings. With the recent bush fires and overalls tourism down at the moment you can find some really good flight/accommodation deals to travel here. The resort is also very timely and with it so they usually offer deals around holidays. I booked our trip during an Australia Day sale. We went during the middle of the summer and although typically a popular time to travel I don’t think this is the area’s peak tourism time. Be aware of when that is when you book. We had the luxury of being pretty relaxed with our bookings and could even call the day of/a couple of hours in advance to book. During peak season things may sell out or need more notice. 

I’m really glad that I was able to experience the Australian Outback. This was a once in a lifetime trip and I absolutely loved it! If you want something totally different and a unique experience you should really consider traveling out here yourself!

Hotel Review – Hunter Valley

In true Sylwia fashion I waited to the last minute to book our Hunter Valley trip. In my defense I was waiting for the weather and thought that since we were going on a weekday there wouldn’t be any issues. I was in contact with one hotel, but never actually made the reservation. When we finally decided to book, our first choice actually ended up being sold out so we had to go for a plan b. That took form as the Crown Plaza Hunter Valley. Not really sure what to expect we were blown away when driving up to the property. It was huge! Even including a golf course, two onsite restaurants, a fitness center, two pools, and more. The property itself was gorgeous. 

We were booked into a standard room, but were upgraded to a villa. However, this was a bit too much space for two people for one night (and it was also away from the main building and its amenities) so we opted for a normal room instead. The room was spacious and clean. The bed was super comfortable and they also provided a deep sleep pillow spray – what a cute little touch! 

Both on-site restaurants were yummy and our dinner at Redsalt was fantastic! Lovedale is a slightly more casual and has a sports bar feel, this is where we had lunch the next day and again it was delicious. They even had the option of making a pizza with vegan cheese and/or a cauliflower base. Two thumbs up for the food. 

I utilized the gym, but with the weather I wasn’t able to make the most of the onsite pools. There was also a spa and on weekends they have a brewery tour. If we stayed longer we would have made use of everything available. 

The amenities were nice, food was great, room was above average – what else could you ask for? Well the staff and all the workers were so professional and we were impressed by how friendly and efficient the reception staff was. They really were the icing on the cake for the entire experience. 

I would highly recommend the Crown Plaza in Hunter Valley if you were to stay in the area overnight. 

Hunter Valley

Besides being known for its beautiful beaches and wildlife, Australia is also known for its wine. The hot, dry climate is similar to other more well-known wine regions. Australia’s history is filled with European expats, and much like the coffee culture, it makes sense that the European wine culture also made its way to Oz. Growing and producing wonderful wine was never an issue, but the far distance of exportation and travel time, mostly by boat in the earlier days, made it difficult for the wine to become well known around the world. 

The five main wine regions spread across Australia are the Barossa Valley and Coonawarra in South Australia, Yarra Valley in Victoria, Margaret River in Western Australia, and Hunter Valley in New South Wales. 

Hunter Valley is a day trip away from Sydney. Hunter Valley produces many kinds of wines, but they are most well known for Semillons, Verdelhos, and Shirazes. My first trip to Hunter Valley was actually back in October on a day trip and really loved it. Hunter Valley is just under a two-hour drive from Sydney’s city center and there are about 150 different wineries/cellar doors to visit. You pretty much have to drive here or take a coach. Public transportation doesn’t really get you into this area and you would still need a way around once here. Given that there’s a lot of drinking involved my first trip to Hunter I opted for a bus day-tour

With my mom visiting, I wanted to go back so she could also experience Hunter Valley. I had such a great trip back in October I decided to book the same exact tour, but we would stay a night and be picked up the next afternoon instead of squeezing everything into one day. Booking was a bit of a pain and if it was my only experience with the company it wouldn’t have been positive, but in the end it all it worked out. 

The tour was exactly the same as the one I did in October, but it was equally as enjoyable. We started the day with the De Iuliis winery. We tried three whites, three reds (including one rose), and a sweet wine. The next stop was at Hermitage at Hunter Valley Resort and we had four wine and cheese pairings and at the same location we had our lunch. After lunch we stopped by Leogate Estate’s cellar door, which is a gorgeous property and events venue, for five or six more tastings. Finally, we were done with wine and went to the Hunter Valley Distillery for some vodka and spirits tastings. The trip rounded off with a stop for something sweet at the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company. 

Normally, the tour would go straight back to Sydney, but we were dropped off at a hotel for the night. Not only were we spared the normal bus ride back after a day of drinking, the next day we also learned that the bus we would have been on broke down an hour and a half out of Sydney and everyone had to get Ubers back into the city whist it started raining. My mom and I had an awesome evening safe and sound/oblivious to what everyone else was facing in our hotel and spent the following afternoon relaxing around the hotel until our ride came.

Hunter Valley was a success! I really enjoyed the tour again, but probably wouldn’t do it a third time, however, if I lived in Sydney I would make it a weekend getaway every once in a while or for special occasions. If you’re in the Sydney area I definitely think this is a must do to get out of the city for a day. 

Hotel Review – Darling Harbour (Sydney)

Darling Harbour is the “other harbour” in Sydney the main one being where the sort of famous bridge and drying plates or sails building (aka the Sydney Opera House) is. Darling Harbour is typically less crowded with tourists and has more of the business/convention crowds, given the close proximity to the Sydney Convention Center. On Fridays, they have fireworks, although all fireworks have been put on hold since last year because of the bush fires. This Friday’s fireworks (the 8th) have not been cancelled yet. Darling Harbour is in a prime location because it’s an easy walk into the CBD, but not directly in it. The new Light Rail/tram makes it easier than ever to travel west from Central Station. 

My mom is visiting me in Australia as of Monday and there was no way she would do the hostel life so I went on a search for hotels. Our first hotel on her trip is Novotel Sydney Darling Harbour. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I haven’t stayed at a Novotel before, but I was blown away with the lobby once inside. It was spacious with high ceilings and beautifully decorated. The check in and check out process was smooth with the front desk staff being super friendly and accommodating. 

The room itself wasn’t show-stopping and smelled a little musty/muggy until you turned on the AC to circulate air throughout. It was a decent sized, clean, and we had two beds. The TV was enormous, but there were two main highlights of the room: first being blackout curtains that wow really worked wonders and the second being was the bed. The bed/pillows were so comfortable. I would stay here just for the amazing night’s sleep. 

There was also a little gym, tennis court, and outdoor pool on property. Happy Hour ran around the lobby level bar from 4-6pm each day with $6 beer, wine, and spirits. They also had pretty amazing chips “fries” for a little nibble. 

My mom wants me to make sure I note the great service we received. She had dropped something down the drain and the engineer/maintenance worker came so quickly to retrieve it. She was shocked by how quick and efficient they were and not expecting a tip, but just doing their job. 

I had three sort of negatives with the hotel, but they wouldn’t deter me from staying here again or recommending this property. The first and main one was I tried ordering room service Sunday night. When calling I asked if a specific dish was vegan and was assured it was. When it was delivered it had a side of mayo (okay I don’t have to use that), but then it was covered in cheese. I called back and she said they would remake it vegan. When it came to be delivered the second time I was greeted to no mayo or cheese, but the attendee told me the chef had said it wasn’t prepared vegan. That was an eye roll moment especially as they didn’t have any other vegan options on the menu except fries. At that point on a Sunday night it was too late to have anything else delivered either. The second negative, was that our room wasn’t turned over after the first night. We had placed the sign to make up the room, but it must have been misread as do not disturb. Not a big deal, but then when they did make up the room after the second day they left an extra sheet around the room. The attention to detail just wasn’t there. Finally, the third con isn’t directly related to the hotel, the light rail stop was directly below the hotel, but it was so hard to get to and signage was so poor. I’ve found that this is kind of the light rails thing, not being able to find it or make it easy for riders, but as a hotel guest it should be easier to know how to get to the light rail and harbour side. Not spending a chunk of time roaming a garage.

This is definitely a hotel you would want to stay at on a business trip to the city, but I also think it’s a good option if you want to get out of the center of the CBD. The value was great and the night’s sleep was awesome.

Going to Middle-Earth

My first memory of Lord of the Rings was being dragged to the movies with my parents and falling asleep in the theater…sorry. Hey I was really young and I think LOTR was a bit out my depth especially when I was in the princess stage of my life (wait have I left that stage yet?…hmmm). 

Anyway, I have seen the movies as an adult and have a greater appreciation for the franchise than I did when I was 8. One of the really cool things about New Zealand is that filming for the movies took place all around the country and locals are very proud of it. That being said while in the North Island I obviously had to stop by Hobbiton.

Ticket prices were a bit hefty, but they included roundtrip transportation from Rotoura, a guide tour, a drink at the end of the tour, and in general I think the upkeep of the property is extensive/expensive.

When the Rings trilogy was first filmed Middle-Earth was constructed very movie like, which meant it was all facades and deconsecrated once filming was complete. I won’t go into the full history, but an abbreviated version follows. When originally scouting locations Peter Jackson was looking for a big tree and a lake in the middle of lush hills. I guess this wasn’t as easily found as originally expected, but they finally stumbled upon Alexander Family Farms in Matamata.

Once the movies were released fans started visiting the farm regardless of the fact that the hobbit holes were gone so when the Hobbit movies were being contracted the farm’s owner wanted the set to be built correctly and be kept there indefinitely after filming. Smart businessman and now Hobbiton stands on a working farm bringing tourism into the area too.

Even if you’re not a mega-fan (around 40% of visitors haven’t even seen the movies) it’s still really cool to see. Yes, it was once a movie set, but the detail, care, and continuous attention to the property make you feel like you are in a real village and that you may stumble upon a real hobbit. And if you are a LOTR fan this is obviously a must do for you.

Surf’s Up Raglan

Raglan is more or less New Zealand’s version of Byron Bay. Known for the awesome surf and chill lifestyle. I loved Byron so I was excited to check it out. It really was a lovely, bohemian town. Very walkable and positioned right on the water so there are amazing sunsets. Also similar to Byron live music was constantly playing.

Raglan is known for having epic surf. Something about a left-handed break (not going to pretend I know what that means). It was a featured location in the 60’s movie Endless Summer. There are also lots of surf competitions both national and international that have been hosted here. So everyone kept saying this was “the” spot to try surfing in New Zealand. I was a bit apprehensive to give it a go because last winter back home I tried snow boarding and that was an epic fail. People always compare surfing and snowboarding so I wasn’t too optimistic. I’m also realistic and knew I would need more than one lesson. In short I’ve been putting it off, but it has been something I wanted to do. So in a very last minute decision I decided to give it a go with one of the other girls traveling with Stray.

My lesson was with Raglan Surf School and I had the absolute best time! The first part of the lesson was dry and the instructors went over the water conditions, board orientations, standing technique, etc. Then we drove to the beach and suited up in wet suits. When we got in the water the temperature was actually perfect. There were two instructors in the water and six students. It was a good ratio and each of us got plenty of attention/instruction. We all stood up multiple times and it was the perfect first lesson. I can’t wait to go surfing again.

There are many shops and restaurants in Raglan and everything is in walking distance. There were also a few bars that looked great, but I didn’t get to venture to them during my short stay. We kept our two nights in Raglan pretty chill. One of those nights our group watched terrible Christmas movies, but it was great.

Food

Raglan is on the water so there’s a great variety of super fresh fish. I broke my rule of never going to the same restaurant twice after finding the best fish and chips shop and went back two nights in a row. It was a bit of a walk (15 or so minutes) through nice neighborhoods and located right on a pier. The best part was that it was also super cheap. Your entire dinner-and the portions were generous-under $10. Fresh fish in large portions all at a reasonable price with a water view?! Major score!

More in town I found a cute ice cream shop with loads of awesome flavors or they could spin a flavor fresh for you. First you pick a base: vanilla ice cream or yogurt. Then you can pick up to three fruits. I went with pineapple, blackberry, and boysenberry. It comes out so fresh and yummy I could have gotten multiple, but I refrained with some self control that I didn’t know I possessed.

My last stop on my own food tour was a hidden hole in the wall bakery. They had the best fresh bread. I went with a multi-seed/grain loaf. It was $7.50 NZ so not super cheap, but so good and it lasted a few days.

Raglan Sunset Motel

My hostel stays in New Zealand really haven’t been bad. So far it has been less hit or miss than in Australia. Nonetheless I am always excited not to stay in a hostel when the situation arrises. In Raglan the preferred accommodation was the Raglan Sunset Motel.

We still had shared rooms, but at this point you’ve been traveling with one another for a while so it feels nice to share a room with the people you have gotten to know. It kind of starts feeling like summer camp.

The Stray travelers had their own section of the property with a lovely private courtyard, a lounge, and hot tub (spa). The rooms had super comfy beds and kitchenettes. They also offered free wifi and laundry!! That is totally unheard of. Raglan is small so everything is in walking distance and this property was one turn from the main street/village center. Not sure how many other accommodation options are in Raglan, but I know there was at least one hostel you could stay at. However, I would recommend the Sunset Motel.

Overwhelmed in Rotorua

Thursday Night Market Treat

Rotorua is the first stop I will be spending a longer chunk of time – four nights to be exact. It’s known for the highest percentage of Maori (indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand) and having a sulfuric (rotten egg) smell.

If you know me, you know I am a major participator. This made Rotorua very challenging for me. There was too much to do and see and not enough time. I had to keep telling myself to chill out and really pick and choose my activities. There was no need to do everything and still plenty of New Zealand to see. So I definitely missed out on some things, but it’s an excuse to go back, right?

Redwoods

Here are some of my highlights from Rotorua:

Redwood Forest. I haven’t been to the California version so I can’t compare them, but it was really magical. The trees somehow grow and mature 20 years faster than in California. It’s actually not “somehow” it’s totally because of the volcanic soil, but they are massive. I went with our whole group for a short loop on our first day, but then I returned and did a longer loop myself. They have a treetop walk with suspension bridges (for a cost) and in the evenings they are lit up with lights and projections. It was absolutely beautiful and worth going.

Hobbiton. Not in the city, but an easy bus ride away. A must for all Lord of the Ring fans, but being a fan isn’t a requirement.

Rafting. Sooooo cool! This was my first time rafting and I’m obsessed. Such a cool feeling and the company did a fantastic job making everything run as smooth as possible.

Polynesian Spa. A geothermal hot springs spa with natural pools and spa therapies. I went on a rainy evening and enjoyed jumping between the mineral hot pools (four alkaline and one acidic between 36-41 degrees Celsius). It was truly a relaxing experience.

Ready for her close up

Cat Cafe. Yep, I went to a purebred cat cafe and I don’t regret it. I would say I’m definitely more of a dog person, but it was still a nice experience. These are resident cats so not up for adoption and they thrive here. For $15 NZ (under $10 USD) you have a choice of a coffee drink and an hour with the cats.

Night Market. I am a sucker for markets/fairs/festivals – anything outside of the traditional shop. On Thursday nights there is a night market in town complete with tons of food vendors and music acts. I couldn’t have asked for a better first night.

Waitomo Caves. You can do a day trip to the caves if that’s something you’re interested in.

Rotorua is a must stop while on the North Island. Just prepare yourself for the smell.

Rotorua YHA Review

YHA is Xmas Ready

I’ve become pretty familiar and comfortable with YHA’s so I pretty much knew what to expect going into it with this one. Spending four nights at a hostel you better like it. I walked into my room and there was an older gentleman on one of the beds….umm okay I thought I was in a female dorm. Guess not. He didn’t realize either and actually commented and then said he didn’t speak much English. Okay let me sort this out. Well I went downstairs and asked nicely if there was another female coming into the dorm or if there was a female only dorm I could move into. The reception worker says, “you’re in luck” and hands me a new key. Well I was moved to a glorious double bed private room. Thank you!

When we returned from Raglan I stayed at the YHA again, but alas no private upgrade this time. One of the best parts of this hostel is the central location and the fact that almost all buses pick up directly from here so no schlepping your stuff. The kitchen/hang out area is also really nice. Even though I’ve had a top bunk (which I hate) for three nights I’m still enjoying my stay.

I’ve mostly heard horror stories about the other hostels in the area. I don’t know firsthand so I won’t name them, but from what I hear the YHA is the way to go in Rotorua.

Waves & Caves

A small group of us Stray travelers broke off to do the Waves & Caves excursion. This trip went west to Raglan stopping at Waitomo and then looping back to Rotorua. Waitomo has about 50 residents, but lots of tourism pouring in daily to visit the underground caves in the area. When planning my trip to New Zealand (“NZ”) going to the Waitomo Caves was highly recommended to me. The pictures looked stunning and this seemed like a once in a lifetime experience. I went with a caving adventure that included tubing called Tumu Tumu Toobing. Beyond knowing I would see glowworms I didn’t know what to expect.

We had a very small group: me, a female Kiwi guide, and four german boys (and yes I mean boys they were 18-19 years old). We drove from the main building/check-in center over to the cave site and had to get geared up. Thick wetsuits with knee and butt pads, jackets, rain boots, and helmets with lights created a very stylish ensemble. We looked legit, but how cold was it down there if we needed all of this? Eek!

We walked along the rolling greens and our guide, Deni, gave us a bit of history. She said that Waitomo is covered with thousands of caves and they were usually discovered when an animal or person fell into one. They really became a nuisance and farmers wanted the NZ government to fill them, but this turned out to be way too costly so instead the government gave the farmers the ownership. Now a handful (about twelve) are commercialized, which is great for those farmers, but the rest just have these “annoying” formations on their land that they may not even know about. You would never be able to tell that caves existed under the green land. In my head caves were reserved to cliffs, rocks, and around oceans not in the middle of a green field with sheep.

When we got to the cave opening we had to climb down 10ish meters – well here goes nothing. Of course as soon as we were all down and waiting for our guide Deni one of the boys had to say, “if there was an earthquake right now we would all die.” Eye roll and thanks for that. Okay literally no turning back now and we start right away by crawling through tight spaces in a couple of inches of water. The cave ranged in width, height, water level, etc. every second there was a change. At some points we had to crawl on our hands and knees, others we could stroll easily, then we would have to balance while walking on sharp, thin rocks. The scenery was changing every step of the way which was cool and because we were a small group Deni let us do extra squeezes/tunnels.

Without a doubt my favorite part were the glowworms. They were so pretty and really glowed like crazy. It was like millions of a pretty blue pinprick lights. Of course we didn’t have our phones on us and because it’s so dark a normal camera wouldn’t be able to actually capture what we were seeing. Glowworms are actually pretty wild. They let thin strings down (similar to a spider web) which paralyzes insects that accidentally fly into them. They then go down and eat them. After nine months they bring the string back up and make a cocoon for two weeks. Once they emerge as an adult gnat they won’t feed any more and only live 2-3 days with the only purpose being to mate and lay eggs. They are also pretty much cannibals and will eat another glowworm if it gets too close or if it gets trapped in the string. Seems like a lot of work to only be a gnat for 3 days. So what makes them glow? Well not to be gross, but that beautiful bioluminescence is essentially glowing poo. TMI I know.

We were in the cave for 2ish hours. So it was a long time to be in the pitch black, cold water, and tight spaces. Don’t get me wrong it was totally awesome, but I was happy to finally see sunlight at the end of the tunnel.

If you’ve never been in a cave I highly recommend checking it out. It’s cool seeing our world from below and now knowing there’s a whole system just below our feet.

New Zealand’s First Stop – Hahei

Stingray Bay – my favorite spot in Hahei

More like Hah-yay. This was the first official stop on my New Zealand adventure. A small village located in the Coromandel Peninsula (northern area of the North Island). The guide said that many New Zealanders holiday here in the summer months and that this wasn’t a typical tourist stop.

The bus left Auckland before 8am. I grabbed Dunkin’ and hauled my luggage down to the bus stop. There were about 30 or so other travelers on the bus. Most of us are traveling solo, but there are a few people traveling pairs or with significant others.

Once in Hahei there is an optional kayaking trip that afternoon. I opt out and go for a walk/mini hike instead. From Hahei Beach to Cathedral Cove is just under 4km. Cathedral Cove is a beautiful beach/marine reserve hidden in the cliff side of the bay. This location was featured in Narnia as well as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ Can’t Hold Us music video. I stay on the beach for a little bit enjoying the sun before heading back.

Group Dinner

That evening we has the option of joining in for a group dinner. It was the perfect opportunity to get to know each other over a super tasty meal. A group of us stayed up late playing Cards Against Humanity (Australian version and yes it is different/weirder than the U.S. version).

The next day was very easy going and at 1pm we made our way to Hot Water Beach. There’s a section of the beach where an underground hot water river flows and two hours on either side of low tide you can dig your own hot pool. It’s like a man-made, natural hot tub. For dinner we had food truck style burgers from Serial Griller. These are dubbed as one of the best burgers in New Zealand if not “the best.” That night a smaller group of us decorated the bus for Christmas and absolutely made a mess with glitter.

A couple of us wanted to watch the sunrise and planned on waking up at 5am so it was a chill night. At 8am we were leaving Hahei and heading off to the next destination.

Hahei Holiday Resort Review

We arrived at the Hahei Holiday Resort and had our own section of the property sectioned of for Stray travelers. It included private bathrooms, cabins, a kitchen, dining area, and outdoor terrace with a BBQ. At the peak the property can hold 1,500 people in a range of cabins to campgrounds. We had cabins with bunk beds and single beds (I scored a single bed – woo!).

The property is right off the beach and a 2 minute, easy walk. It’s also a 5 minute walk into town. There is another hostel in town, but the town is very small so you are limited on accommodation options.

Serial Griller is located on the property and there is also a breakfast pop up. The small coffee shop has coffee and gives you a .50 cent discount if you bring your own cup.

Everything about Hahei was a positive experience. It was the perfect first stop during my NZ trip. In general I wish I could spend more time on the Coromandel Peninsula. This would be high on my list of spots to come back to.